Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Plenty of characters have become synonymous with catchphrases, but how many character actors can say they have a catchphrase all their own? For Isiah Whitlock Jr., his one of a kind, distinctive, drawn-out reading of the word, “sheeeeeeeeeit” (that’s nine “e’s,” for those counting) has followed him from multiple film roles to an all-time-great television series, all the way to the canals of Venice, Italy. He’s even made it into a lucrative side business, selling talking bobbleheads with his likeness. The actor has no problem being branded as “the ‘sheeeeeeeeeit’ guy”—“it makes people happy!,” Whitlock says—so he’s learned to live with it, even if it may have cursed one of his relationships.
But a man is so much more than the sum of his “sheeeeeeeeeits,” and Isiah Whitlock Jr. has proven himself a reliable and versatile actor over the past three decades. His breakthrough came in the form of The Wire’s State Senator Clay Davis—a memorably smooth-talking shyster in a series full of them—which he’s followed with recurring roles on Rubicon, Veep, and across the Law & Order franchise (“I think I’ve done more [episodes] than anybody I’ve ever met!”). Whitlock’s also become something of a regular player for Spike Lee, starting with 25th Hour in 2002, all the way up through last year’s Da 5 Bloods. Just last month, he wrapped up his run on Showtime’s prestige miniseries, Your Honor, and banged the gavel himself as the flummoxed judge in J. Blakeson’s I Care A Lot. The A.V. Club was happy to revisit the indelible roles (and one particular TV movie that’s better off forgotten) of Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s career for Random Roles. The full interview is below, as well as some video highlights from our Zoom call with the actor.
I Care A Lot (2021) —“Judge Lomax”
The A.V. Club: I Care A Lot is fun, but it’s also deeply cynical, and Judge Lomax might be its single “good”—if ultimately clueless—character. What’s your take on the movie’s worldview? Are we doomed?
Isiah Whitlock Jr.: Well, I wouldn’t say we’re doomed, but it’s not too far from [our reality]. One of the reasons why I wanted to do this character is because of the subject matter that it dealt with; I have a friend in a similar situation with an assisted living-type place, and they pretty much have lost everything. I didn’t even think in the movie they went as far as they possibly could. Because it really is shocking when you see just what can possibly happen if all of the cards fall in the right place—that was one of the things that really attracted me to to the the the film. And, as Judge Lomax, how—just based on the law—how you can unwittingly contribute to do this. I mean, what we see in that film is happening quite a bit and, if anything, we kind of lift the veil, so to speak. People need to seriously take a look at what’s happening. And then, sure, we get into the darker, comedic parts of it, but that subject matter I found very, very serious and very real.
AVC: It’s interesting you say that because there’s also The New York Times’ documentary about Britney Spears, which delves into some similar territory. It’s fascinating to see these themes resonate in our culture in two very different ways.
IWJ: Yeah, and I mean, they have the HIPAA laws and things like that, which try to protect, but they can be manipulated. It’s that manipulation part that we don’t pay attention to, and I have seen people lose everything. It’s almost as if you’re wiped off the map, as if you never existed. And I find it frightening when it’s happening—I find it frightening in the film! But I think people should seriously take a look at that type of a situation so that they don’t get caught in it.
AVC: And Rosamund Pike does an incredible job anchoring the movie, while also being its antagonist, in a way.
IWJ: She’s great, she’s a real, solid professional—very comfortable within herself and her skin. And I think that’s what allows her to make those different types of adjustments. You know, you can just tell by the manner, just the way they approach the character, deliver lines, and things like that, like, “This person is really solid.” It makes you wake up in a way, as an actor working with that person. I mean, I love working with people like that because that forces me to give a little something extra and be involved in ways that I never, ever thought would be. So it was a delight working [opposite her].
Your Honor (2020-2021)—“Charlie”
IWJ: I’m no longer the judge here! [Laughs.] I go onto the other side of the cloak, so to speak.
AVC: Right! Now, this is a pretty dark world, but Charlie’s sartorial choices bring some pops of color; what’s the thinking behind his bowties and colorful outfits?
IWJ: It was interesting because, when I got the role, I immediately started thinking about what I wanted this character to be. I played a politician on The Wire [too], so I said, “Well, I’ve got to come up with something new!” So, when I knew that [Your Honor] was in New Orleans, and what little bit I knew about New Orleans—which is not much—the costume designer called me and said, “Do you have any ideas?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I do. I think this guy would be really sharp, and he would wear these really cool clothes and bowtie and lots of color!” Because everything else is in this sort of dark-ish gray and everything like that. And I didn’t want to make Charlie some flamboyant guy—I wanted to him to be [polished]. When I was in San Francisco, there was a guy there who was an Assemblyman who later became the mayor of San Francisco, and his name was Willie Brown. I said to myself, “I want to dress the way Willie Brown used to dress,” because he was always the sharpest man in the city—there was no doubt about it. It was sort of like an effortless kind of thing. Every time you saw Willie Brown, he was just GQ clean. And I said, “That’s what I want to be. When you see Charlie, I want him to be GQ”. And that’s I told them what my ideas were—when people see me, I want them to see Charlie.
AVC: We spoke with Margo Martindale last spring, and she shared that she was in the middle of filming Your Honor when everything had to be shut down because of COVID. What was that experience like for you?
ISJ: I was on set working with her! We had that big dinner scene that we were shooting, and—just to tell you the truth—Bryan Cranston says, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” And I thought, “Okay, this is it. They’re going to fire me. They just hate everything that I’m doing.” It’s that insecurity of every actor, you know? It’s like, no matter how old you get, you’re always thinking doom at some point.
But he said, “I think we’re going to have to shut down for a couple of weeks.” And I remember saying, “God, a couple of weeks, really? It’s going to have to take that long?” And he said, “No, it might be longer.” Well, okay! But I was just thinking we were just going to do two weeks, then two weeks turned into like seven months—I mean, we shut down in March and didn’t come back until October. You would think, in that amount of time, you would forget things, and things would get out of your head. But seeing that you weren’t doing anything else—because everything was shut down, the world was shut down—everything kind of stuck with you! So when we went back to it, it was like, “Yeah, it’s been a while, but we’re just sort of picking up where we left off!” So making that adjustment was not too bad. If I had been doing, you know, five or six other things in between, I would have some serious problems. But, no, it was like that was the job I ended with; I did a couple of things, but nothing to that extent, that was going to pull my mind away from playing Charlie in Your Honor.
The Wire (2002-2008)—“State Senator R. Clayton ‘Clay’ Davis”
The A.V. Club: Nearly two decades old, The Wire is still seen as a pinnacle of storytelling on television. What has it meant for you and your career?
IWJ: I remember when we finished, I thought it was one of those things—like all the other roles—that would just kind of drift away. I knew that, at the time, we were making a big impact on the social condition in the country and in various cities, even though this took place in Baltimore. But I really thought it was just going to drift away. I was shocked, well—yeah, shocked. I am very surprised that, 20 years later, I am still dealing with The Wire. A lot of that has to do with the famous catchphrase that I perpetuated…
AVC: We may be familiar.
IWJ: I remember at the closing night party, David Simon came up to me and he said, “You know you’re going to have to live with that.” I said, “Eh, you know, in a year or so it’s going to be over.” He said, “I don’t know,” and it turned into everywhere I went. And I’m talking like around the world. I heard people saying —I saw it in Amsterdam on the other side of the tracks, written in like graffiti with a guy who looked like Fat Albert. I guess that was supposed to be me—I had a problem with that part. [Laughs.] But it was this [graffiti drawing] saying it, and I thought, “You know, I’m going to have to deal with this.”
And then when I was in Venice, some guy from Alberta, Canada, who I seem to have run into every day—I don’t know if he was stalking me or something—but I had to listen to it getting onto a gondola. [Laughs.] And it was a bit much, you know, but I have learned to live with it.
But that’s just the effect that the show had on people. I was very happy about that. You say to yourself, “You know? I was part of something very, very good.” And you hear that they’re teaching it in colleges and things like that—the show still kind of resonates today, 20 years later. I’m very proud of that. I mean, I think any actor would love to be a part of something like that, and I was just fortunate enough to be there.
AVC: With more of the country waking up to the importance of local politics—on a city level, a community level—The Wire feels as relevant as ever.
IWJ: If you want to see what’s happening in the inner city, what’s been happening in politics, I always thought Clay Davis—when you look at a lot of politicians today—he’s not too far removed. They may not be doing as much, but he’s not too much removed from some politicians. And, you know, I was able to capture some of that—how things can be twisted and worked. It’s political!
AVC: Since you brought up the catchphrase, how is the bobblehead business doing?
IWJ: Yes, you can still get a bobblehead! We’ve sold more than I ever thought. I was only going to do, like, 100, and I think I’ve sold about 10,000? But, you know, it was a little weird because we started on Kickstarter and we raised $100,000 on Kickstarter—I think was one of the biggest campaigns ever—and so I got a check for 100 grand and I thought, “This would be real ‘Clay Davis’ if took the money and didn’t deliver on any of it.” [Laughs.] I could just say, “Hey, look, you knew who you were dealing with!” Like, go back, watch the series. You know where your thirty dollars went, right?
AVC: Where’s the strangest place you’ve heard the catchphrase? Was it that time in Venice?
IWJ: Yeah, yeah. It was a little weird in in Venice—they have a bridge called The Bridge Of Sighs, and if you go under it at sunset and you kiss your loved one, you’ll be in love forever. I was with a woman in Venice, and that was our plan: To get on this gondola, kiss, and be in love forever. Well, with the guy saying, “Sheeeeeeeeet!,” and the gondola driver going the wrong way, it never happened. And here I am, here by myself. [Laughs.] But it’s okay! It wasn’t meant to be.
History Of Swear Words (2021)—Himself
AVC: You were just in Netflix’s History Of Swear Words; they wanted to talk about the history of the word “shit”—who else were they going to call?
IWJ: Right, round up the usual suspects, you know? [Laughs.] Think about it: You’re going to do the History Of Swear Words and not put me in there? I’m sorry! You’ve got to give credit where credit is due, you know? When I went to the audition for Spike, I was just kind of playing around with the word, and he said, “Do that again. Do that again!” He said, “You should keep that.” So, when he hired me, I did it in the film, and at first I didn’t want to do it. In that moment, when [Agent Flood] finds stuff in the couch, he said, “You should do that!” And I said, “No, no, no, I was thinking about doing something else.” He said, “No, I think you should do that.” So I did. And then I did it later in that film, and the rest is history.
It wasn’t something where I said, “Okay, I’m going to do this, and this is going to be some major catchphrase that a guy is going to be yelling at me from a gondola in Venice.” [Laughs.] It was just something I did because a lot of people back home did that. So it wasn’t like the first time anybody had heard it, but a friend of mine has said, “No, it’s the way you do it, in your voice. That’s the thing that sticks with people.” So it makes people happy. [Laughs.] And it does it does come in handy. I find myself saying it when I’m in certain situations, or when I see something very incredulous, you know, like, “Sheeeeeeeeeit!” People appreciate it!
25th Hour (2002)—“Agent Flood”
She Hate Me (2004)—“Agent Amos Flood”
Red Hook Summer (2012) —“Detective Flood”
AVC: But, importantly, the catchphrase is not from The Wire—you actually first said it in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour.
IWJ: That’s right.
AVC: That was the first of many collaborations with Spike, and one of three times you played a character named Flood. Is there a deeper connection there that you know of? Or is that just an in-joke, of sorts?
IWJ: There’s no real [connection]. It’s like, I get a call from Spike, and he says, “I want you to do this for me, and his name is Agent Flood.” I thought, “Okay, Flood just keeps losing his job and getting another job.” [Laughs.] And that’s kind of like the whole thing with the, “Sheeeeeeeeeit!,” that it just going and just keeps moving. But there’s nothing beyond that—I mean, there may be with Spike, but he hasn’t told me. But with Spike, there probably is [a reason] because he’s usually very specific about things, but that’s all I know.
AVC: When did you two first meet? Was it for 25th Hour?
IWJ: The first time I met Spike was when I was doing a play on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and Spike came to see the play. And by that time we had moved uptown—so we were in Midtown—but Spike came to see the play and he came backstage. I remember I was just nervous and terrified and he said, “You know, I really enjoyed the play.” There was only four of us in the play, but we all met Spike. And then I had an audition with him immediately after that. That’s when I got the role of Agent Flood in The 25th Hour. And he put all of the other cast members in the movie too. So we were all very delighted and happy. Looking back, that was a big day for me, because I didn’t realize that it would start this relationship over the next 20 years—it went from film to film to film, you know? Ending with Da 5 Bloods. To be blunt, I can’t speak enough [about Spike Lee], but he’s always been a fan of my work and has always put me in films and things, so I appreciate that.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)—“Melvin”
AVC: You filmed Da 5 Bloods almost two years ago in Thailand, and it’s now receiving awards buzz, including your SAG Outstanding Performance By A Cast nomination. What’s that journey been like for you?
IWJ: Oh, the attention’s been great, because, you know, you set out to do something like this—I don’t think anybody ever knows how it’s going to turn out. And you’re always hoping for the best; you just want to go in and do your job. But it was such a grueling shoot that it is kind of a cherry on the top, because we really did put the work in. There was such a bond, and there were times when you just sort of had to hold on to one another because we were just [out there] with the mosquitoes and the flies and the heat and the the hours and the dirt. You got to a point where it was like you were just living it.
When I saw the film, I saw so much of that coming across. And that’s what it needed to be, because you didn’t want it to look like some guys in Vietnam who had just come out of their trailers—[Laughs] which is what a lot of these movies look like. I mean, you see some of these movies and you say, “That guy never spent a [day of his life there].” But we looked like we had been living it, and we were. It was beautiful to watch because there was one time when I saw myself and I really was like, “Oh my god!,” you know? The water was just streaming off my face. I just look like I wanted to be someplace else. And that’s what you want! You know, that is war—that is what a lot of these soldiers were going through. But I couldn’t imagine being in that type of a situation. If I was actually in the war, I don’t know how I would have handled it. They almost got me! But, you know, thank god—I would have been cannon fodder anyway.
AVC: The camaraderie between yourself and your cast is also palpable; you can feel the history there. You and Delroy Lindo have known each other for quite some time.
IWJ: Yes, we were in school—I think I was a year ahead of Delroy, Denzel Washington, Annette Bening—they have some pretty good actors there! [Laughs.] I think I had left, and then I went into the company at The American Conservatory Theater, and I was there for about four years before I came to New York City. But I hadn’t seen Delroy—I mean, you know, we would run into one another, but we hadn’t [caught up] for any long period of time. I hadn’t worked with them or anything like that. But I did sort of feel like, what that time in San Francisco did for me—even though it was 30-some odd years later—there was quickness to it, a quick bond. We didn’t have to sit around trying to figure one another out. I knew him, and he knew me. I knew Clarke Peters, and Clarke Peters knows me—we’ve worked together over the years, on many projects. The only one I did not know was nor Norm Lewis. But once we all got everything all figured out, it was like we were off and running. But we knew we were there to to do a job, and we knew how important that job was. Like I said, I think a lot of that shows up in the film. And that, to me, is what warms my heart and makes it so important that we were able to accomplish that.
AVC: And on top of all that, it’s also a great tribute to Chadwick Boseman, with his character “Stormin’” Norman.
IWJ: I mean, when I look back on it, you start to see the little small nuggets, these little clues that something was not quite right. We were all there, and then Chadwick came in later. And he was great as far as coming into the circle and everything like that. I couldn’t imagine anybody else. But I did notice he had lost quite a bit of weight, and he was very distant at times off set. We just thought, “Well, that’s okay—that’s just Chadwick being Chadwick.” When I heard that he had died, when he had passed away, I was like, “Oh, I get it now. I know why.” But I’m glad I didn’t know. I can see why you would need to keep something like that secret, because then we just go about our business working with him and not paying attention to any of that. And it was the smart thing to do. But boy, do we miss him.
AVC: Your first credit looks like a TV version of A Christmas Carol—and this was connected to your time at the American Conservatory Theater?
IWJ: [Laughs.] I’m going to call [IMDB] and see if they can take that credit off.
They had the idea because A Christmas Carol was a thing that they did there every year, so they decided they were going to film it. And, personally, I didn’t think it turned out like it should. I mean, if you’re going to do something like A Christmas Carol, I don’t think you can really do it on a stage, you know? You need that sort of openness, the outdoors, the snow—the scene of London, with the sort of Dickensian look to it. We tried, but you can only do so much on a stage. It was… okay. [Laughs.] It wasn’t it wasn’t one of the crowning things. of my career.
I can’t wait to tell my friends—after all the stuff I’ve done—we’re talking about A Christmas Carol. They’re going to howl. Because my credits used to just start with, like, Gremlins 2 and Goodfellas, but now I have A Christmas Carol. They might start finding some footage from high school since!
IWJ: When I came to New York, I started hanging around The Actors Studio, and a woman came to me and she said, “You know, Paul Newman is doing a reading at his apartment. They’re trying to get some people together to read this script with Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, and a few other people.” So I said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll go!” And I did; I read five or six different parts, or whatever. And then I wanted to get in the movie, which turned out to be The Color Of Money, and they cast Forest Whitaker, which, all hats off to him. But I didn’t get into that movie, and I desperately tried to.
Well, fast forward to Goodfellas. That was sort of like a feeding frenzy in New York City, and I got an audition for it. I went in and I auditioned for the guy who gets who owns the nightclub—he gets hit over the head with a bottle by Joe Pesci. And I thought, “Well, look, they’re not going to cast me as this guy.” I mean, it didn’t make sense, you know? But I got a callback! So I went back and I go into the room, and Martin Scorsese says, “What do I know you from? I know you from somewhere.” I said, “Well, I did those readings at Paul Newman’s for you, for The Color Of Money. He said, “Oh, that’s right, that’s right! Look, that part you auditioned for—obviously, you can’t do that part of. It just wouldn’t work. But I have this character!” He’s a doctor and it’s in the part of the movie where he’s like the only person that that Henry Hill trusts while he’s all coked out and everything like that. He said, “Do you think you could do that for me? I know it’s not much, but if you could do it for me, I would really appreciate it.” And I’m sitting there thinking, “Okay, act like you’ve been there before.” [Laughs.] I said, “Yeah, sure, Marty. I mean, you know, it’s not about the size of the part. It’s what we do!” So he says thanks, and that’s how I got cast! [Laughs.] I didn’t say, “Well, gee, Marty, I have never done a movie before hardly.” But I got cast in Goodfellas—that’s how all of that happened.
I do remember I went to my day job—I was a waiter at a place on 10th Avenue—and I said, “I just got a part in Goodfellas!” And they said, “No way! Get out!” I said, “No, I met with Martin Scorsese, and they’re going to cast me as this doctor.” And one of the guys said, “Oh, I’m going down there tomorrow, and I’m taking my stuff, because if you got a part, I know I’m going to get a part.” [Laughs.] He was like, “They must just be handing out parts—they must need tons of people if they cast you—you just got here!” So he went down there and he didn’t get a part. And here I am!
AVC: So you’re saying Scorsese hadn’t seen your work in A Christmas Carol?
IWJ: Yeah! [Laughs.] And there goes my career! He probably would have said, “You know, I was checking your IMDB page—so, uh, get out of here!” [Laughs.]
Law & Order (1990-2010); Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-2011); Law & Order: SVU (1999-present)—various characters
AVC: It feels like so many working actors in New York have at least one Law & Order credit to their name, but you’ve got about 15. What’s that franchise meant for your career over the years?
IWJ: That show kept me afloat, to be quite honest! I mean, I love being on those shows, and doing all the different characters. But that was kind of like my bread and butter, my go-to. They just kept hiring me, and I kept showing up! And it would always be something different. But I think I’ve done more than anybody I’ve ever met.
I think I was on the first episode of Criminal Intent. I remember my agent called me and he said, “Isiah, I have some good news and I have some bad news”—this was 10 years later. He said, “The good news is, they’re bringing your character back on Criminal Intent. The bad news is that it’s the last show, the last one they’re ever going to do.” [Laughs.] So I was going to bookend the show, after 10 years. The squalid part about this story is: They knew they could get me! [Laughs.] It was as if I hadn’t moved, as if nothing had changed, you know? As if they knew that they could just call me up and get Isiah. And that’s when I said, “Okay, something’s got to change here.”
Veep (2013-2015)—“George Maddox”
IWJ: They were fast—very, very fast, and it’s kind of like you plug in and you’ve just got to roll with it. The improvisation on that show was just phenomenal; it was great. You know, in some shows, you do the line and that’s it, but [on Veep] you don’t do that, you just sort of keep going. And that was something you had to get used to—you don’t really stop until they say cut, or Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] says, “Okay, I’m done.” I mean, it was speedy, and you had to bring your game. You didn’t have very much time to think along the way, you just had to open yourself up to react and respond. But, once you do that, it’s really a nice little ride.
And working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus—I found I’ve never worked with an actor or actress who was so giving. She was always helping you be better, and I really appreciated that. I found her to be very kind in that way, and it did make me relax a little bit and open up even more, because I always sort of felt like she had my back. I had a great time working on this show, working with everybody— they’re very, very funny.
AVC: In improv it always helps to have good sparring partners, good support.
IWJ: [Julia’s] the real deal. I’ve always been a big fan of hers, so to go to work and have the opportunity to work with her was very special.
Punch-Out!!, Wii television spots (2009)—“Doc Louis”
IWJ: That, for me, was just another commercial. Because I hadn’t really seen the game—I mean, they explained it to me and I sort of the gist of [Punch-Out!!]. So you go in and you just do it, and sometimes that’s good because you’ve just got to be as honest as you possibly can to whatever it is you’re doing. So I thought, “It’s a boxing game, and I’ll do it!” I didn’t realize how many people would see it and say, “Hey! You were Doc in Punch-Out!!” [Laughs.] More people play this game than I gave them credit for!
AVC: The nostalgia factor was probably at play, considering Punch-Out!! was a classic Nintendo game too.
IWJ: Over the years, I’d just do these sorts of things and just knock them out, you know? But it all kept me afloat in New York City, and it did pay the bills and things like that. What I didn’t anticipate was the accumulation of it, because there’s stuff that I just kind of forget that people say, “Oh yeah, I saw you in a bunny suit in this commercial!” I’ve been around for a long time! [Laughs.] And I hope to do even more.